The Secret to Success? Learn to Take a Loss

5 min read  |  August 22, 2017  | 

No life is ever without misfortune, no dream without obstacles. Accepting this is perhaps one of the great markers of maturity.

I learned this early on. As a child, I faced occasional rejection in the playground and the classroom.

Then came tougher trials: the loss of a beloved grandparent, a family move I didn’t want, and the bitter knowledge that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many hours I put in, I would never be a starter on the high school volleyball team. But along the way, I also learned I was not alone in adversity. A classmate’s parents divorced in elementary school. Another dealt with a sibling’s illness in college.

We survived. I’d even say we managed to thrive. With the help of family and friends, we discovered the emotional strength needed to keep going. Later in life, knowing that we had already bounced back from these small tragedies helped us face more serious ones.

For me, that included a young husband’s death, a mother’s terminal illness, a sister and brother-in-law’s fatal accident, the loss of a job.

So how do we pull through? One word: resiliency.

“Resiliency is the ability to tackle stressful situations successfully,” says Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, psychiatry and behavioral science expert at the University of Miami Health System. “It’s the difference between not recovering at all and getting close, or even better, to your pre-challenge condition.”

Dhabhar studies how stress affects us biologically. He posits that our reaction to short-term stress — what we commonly call the fight-or-flight response — can actually be physiologically good for us. It boosts our immune system, triggering it into a combat mode. He calls this a “fundamental survival skill.” On the other hand, chronic stress can be harmful.

There is something to glean from these biological reactions for the benefit of our emotional wellbeing. Simply put, the sooner we bounce back, the better. Wallowing in misery, refusing to believe we can change a bad situation, only prolongs and heightens the pain.

Of course, not all stressors are the same and not everyone reacts in the same way or recovers with the same speed.  But here’s the good news: “Resiliency is quite prevalent among the general population,” Dhabhar says. “For many kinds of trauma, people do recover and go on with their lives. The majority do not experience a breakdown.”

More good news:  You can strengthen your resiliency muscle and speed up recovery, too. 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Take care of yourself physically. Get enough sleep. Exercise and eat nutritiously. It’s hard to bounce back and face a cruel world when you’re fatigued or dealing with weight-related health problems. Feeling strong is a hand-up on the bounce-back.
  • Be kind to yourself. Practice mindfulness. Try yoga or meditation. You can help the moving-on process by cutting out unnecessary stressors. Let go of perfection, and give yourself time to grieve or be angry.
  • Be social. Hiding alone with your pain will only serve to imprison you. Try to meet with friends and loved ones at least two or three times a week.
  • Put things in perspective. Somebody cutting you off in traffic is annoying, but it need not be life-changing. For some, however, “a minor traffic situation can be pretty stressful,” Dhabhar explains, “because that’s the perception.”
  • Seek guidance from others who are in the same situation. Support groups can be very helpful. “Knowing that other people have experienced similar challenges and gotten through it can really help,” Dhabhar says. “Support groups provide hope by both showing you’re not alone and by providing specific advice to the situation.”
  • Nurture your positivity. Recognize that the sense of unbearable loss won’t last forever and that you have the power to change. “We’re not talking about fanciful optimism so much as a realistic one,” Dhabhar adds. “If a person knows when to change course, then they’re able to take a loss and modify their plans.”
  • Allow others to help you. Kindness can be uplifting. In other words, accept a friend’s offer for a home-cooked meal or a colleague’s proposal to pick up the slack.  “Some things you have to get through on your own, but in some situations others can be of immense help,” Dhabhar says.

Many parents also worry about how they can best build resiliency in their children. Dhabhar has this advice: Take a step back when your child is facing a challenge. Don’t rescue. Don’t be overprotective.  “You have to give your children the opportunity to face challenges, both emotional and intellectual ones,” he says. “Allow them to learn from experience.”

And one last encouraging thought: “People do learn from adversity,” Dhabhar adds. “They grow from having survived it. You become a better person when you can say, ‘I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff.’”

Ana Veciana author

Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Contributor

Ana is a regular contributor for the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.

Tags: Ana Veciana Suarez, behavioral health, Firdaus Dhabhar, psychiatry, resilience, Self-care

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